Last year’ s Christmas family gathering was a good reminder of how bad I am at defending my life choices, and my lack of social skills in communicating with children. When seeing my cousins and nephews, for the first time in years, I could only think to ask them what I, myself, am still struggling with: “What do you want to become when you’re older?”. Absorbed by his new mobile phone, my 11-year-old nephew seemed unimpressed when faced with the question, but after a moment, he gave me a decisive answer:
“I want to be a YouTuber”
Somehow the response didn’t surprise me. Similar to the dream of becoming a police officer or a doctor, it’s become quite clear that “YouTuber” is nowadays considered a legitimate career choice. Being in a state of constant uncertainty about my future, this made me curious. What does a YouTuber actually do?
It’s a fairly broad definition, but it commonly refers to a person who is occupied by – and builds their career through – video blog entertainment. These individuals specialize in creating content that might not correspond with what we consider traditional media and entertainment work. Subscribers consume all imaginable content, ranging anywhere from their favorite YouTubers playing computer games, discussing social issues, filming landscapes with a drone, or eating spicy food with celebrities. Today, YouTubers are able to generate incomes sufficient to sustain themselves through advertisement and merchandise sales, and in some cases even grow to become millionaires. This often requires them to accumulate a subscription base ranging from thousands to millions, embracing the fandom and building positive relationships with their communities.
Most YouTube vloggers have built their careers from scratch, achieving impressive success with nothing but a camera, a good concept, and access to a popular platform. The best example is perhaps the Swedish YouTuber PewDiePie. Felix Kjellberg, who started off as a student working at a hot-dog stand, began documenting his computer gaming in his spare-time, and quickly became the biggest YouTuber, accumulating over 60 million current subscribers and still growing. He has been efficient in posting videos on a daily basis, entertaining mostly by playing video games, occasionally pulling out stunts like cruising through Brighton topless on a toy car while screaming at confused bystanders. In just a couple of years, he individually made his way from being a poor student to a multi-millionaire and one of Time magazine‘s hundred most influential people.
But being your own publicist on one of the largest online platforms also comes to reveal several issues, particularly when the 28-year old YouTuber’s career achievement is defined by, well, being an irresponsible child. In 2017, PewDiePie came under the spotlight following a controversial comedy video, in which he hired a couple of freelancers to produce a sign with the text “Death to all Jews”. He defended himself by claiming it to have been for comedic purposes, and strongly argued that the things subject of the criticism was taken out of context. Unfortunately, later that year he again faced major backlash after yelling a racial slur in a fit of frustration during a live gaming stream. This time around, he made no excuses for his behavior.
Logan Paul, Janel Parrish and Lucy Hale speak onstage during the Teen Choice Awards 2017
Logan Paul, another high-profile YouTuber with a largely young fan base, was also recently criticized after visiting a so-called suicide forest in Japan to film the experience for his channel. The video contained a clear view of a man’s body from several angles, with Logan and his friends joking around in the background and making light of the situation. This controversy eventually resulted in a huge reaction from both the YouTube community and mainstream media, and YouTube proceeded to take action against his channel.
In recent years, the online platform has indeed taken drastic measures of censorship. Nowadays, videos containing content considered out of line with YouTube’s content guidelines can get demonetized, meaning creators will get little or no revenue through advertisement. Companies, likewise, have the power to pull their ads from content that might be damaging to their image. Whether this is a fair way of stopping “inappropriate“ content from being published is an entirely different discussion, but it is worth mentioning that many YouTubers fear that the increased regulation may undermine the freedom of content creation on the platform.
The point here, however, is one of individual responsibility. Traditionally, public figures have continuously been under media scrutiny during controversies and scandals, but until recently, YouTubers have been overlooked. It is important to note that the words and actions of these figures can be just as influential – if not more – than those of the traditional celebrity. And while, for example, PewDiePie did issue an apology amidst the recent controversy, acknowledging what he did was wrong and unacceptable, he missed one arguably important step: taking a stand on why his actions were wrong.
Why is this important? Considering PewDiePie’s fame and influence, he has arguably become the foremost representative of the gaming and YouTube community. Using racism, sexism or homophobia for comedic purposes is sadly not uncommon for the internet and gaming community, and still remains an everyday occurrence in the world of online gaming, often being taken for granted as innocent banter. So, while an apology might be a temporary solution for making peace with those who feel affected, it arguably fails to address many underlying problems in the everyday trivialization of discriminatory language.
YouTubers, like PewDiePie, are an evident example that anyone can build a career with a bit of creativity and some gadgets. It is therefore no surprise that these individuals also become role models, and a powerful influence on many young individuals striving to achieve similar success. It is too early to tell whether my nephew will follow through with his dreams, but one thing is certain: like many of his peers, he will continue to look up to his favorite YouTubers, and these figures will continue to play a part in how children learn to view the world around them.